Thursday, April 27, 2023

Mormonism Unvailed: then and now

This month (April) marks the tenth anniversary of the release of the CES Letter, Jeremy Runnels' list of questions about Church history and doctrine. It's easy to understand why Jeremy was frustrated at the lack of answers to the questions he raised. 

The Interpreters (FAIRMormon, the Interpreter, etc.) engaged the CES Letter, but as Runnels pointed out, they agreed on some of the key points, such as SITH (the stone-in-the-hat explanation for the Book of Mormon).

2023 also marks the tenth anniversary of John Dehlin's "Faith Crisis Report" and the first of the Gospel Topics Essays. The Faith Crisis Report proposed a way of "Breaking the cycle of disaffection."

1) Mitigating Faith Crisis for Future Generations

Mitigating Faith Crisis for future generations is possible but will require bold steps. The key is to ensure future generations no longer become shocked by gaps between our official LDS narrative and our uncorrelated history.

These so-called "gaps" included SITH vs. the Urim and Thummim explanation that Joseph and Oliver provided. 

The sequence can be summarized this way.

1. In 1834, the book Mormonism Unvailed set out the SITH narrative this way:

The translation finally commenced. They were found to contain a language not now known upon the earth, which they termed "reformed Egyptian characters." The plates, therefore, which had been so much talked of, were found to be of no manner of use. After all, the Lord showed and communicated to him every word and letter of the Book. Instead of looking at the characters inscribed upon the plates, the prophet was obliged to resort to the old ''peep stone," which he formerly used in money-digging. This he placed in a hat, or box, into which he also thrust his face. Through the stone he could then discover a single word at a time, which he repeated aloud to his amanuensis, who committed it to paper, when another word would immediately appear, and thus the performance continued to the end of the book. 

Notice that, apart from the term "old 'peep stone'," this description from Mormonism Unvailed is essentially what the Interpreters advocate today. Dan Peterson even made a movie teaching this to the world.

2. Starting in 1834, Oliver Cowdery wrote 8 essays about Church history to refute the claims of Mormonism Unvailed (including Letter VII about Cumorah).

In December, 1835, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to the Elders of the Church about Mormonism Unvailed:

We might farther say that, we could introduce him to “Mormonism Unveiled.” Also to the right honorable Doct. P. Hurlburt, who is the legitimate author of the same, who is not so much a doctor of physic, as of falsehood, or by name. We could also give him an introduction to the reverend Mr. Howe, the illegitimate author of “Mormonism Unveiled,” in order to give currency to the publication, as Mr. Hurlburt, about this time, was bound over to court, for threatening life. He is also an associate of the celebrated Mr. Clapp, who has of late immortalised his name by swearing that he would not believe a Mormon under oath; and by his polite introduction to said Hurlburt’s wife, which cost him (as we have been informed) a round sum. Also his son Mathew testified that, the book of Mormon had been proved false an hundred times, by Howe’s book: and also, that he would not believe a Mormon under oath. And also we could mention the reverend Mr. Bentley, who, we believe, has been actively engaged in injuring the character of his brother-in-law, viz: Elder S. [Sidney] Rigdon.

Now, the above statements are according to our best information: and we believe them to be true; and this is as fair a sample of the doctrine of Campbellism, as we ask, taking the statements of these gentlemen, and judging them by their fruits. And we might and many more to the black catalogue; even the ringleaders, not of the Nazarenes, for how can any good thing come out of Nazareth, but of the far-famed Mentor mob: all sons and legitimate heirs of the same spirit of Alexander Campbell, and “Mormonism Unveiled,” according to the representation in the cut spoken of above.

The above cloud of darkness has long been beating with mountain waves upon the immovable rock of the church of the Latter Day Saints, and notwithstanding all this, the mustard seed is still towering its lofty branches, higher and higher, and extending itself wider and wider, and the charriot wheels of the kingdom are still rolling on, impelled by the mighty arm of Jehovah; and in spite of all opposition will still roll on until his words are all fulfilled.

Our readers will excuse us for deviating from the subject, when they take into consideration the abuses, that have been heaped upon us heretofore, which we have tamely submitted to, until forbearance is no longer required at our hands, having frequently turned both hand the right and left cheek, we believe it our duty now to stand up in our own defence. 

(Messenger and Advocate II.3:228 ¶2–5)

In 1836, Orson Hyde wrote to the Messenger and Advocate

The cause of God will roll on in the face of an opposing world, and I cannot but make the expression of the Prophet, saying, “no weapon formed against thee shall prosper.” The first weapon raised against the spread of truth, of any consideration in this country, was the wicked and scurrilous pamphlet published by A. Campbell. Next, perhaps, were the letters of E. Booth, and thirdly, Mormonism unveiled written by Mr. E.D. Howe, alias. Doct. P. Hulbert.
These were designed severally in their turn for the exposure and overthrow of “Mormonism” as they termed it; but it appears that heaven has not blessed the means which they employed to effect their object, “No weapon raised against it shall prosper.”
The writings of the above named persons, I find have no influence in the world at all; for they are not even quoted by opposers, and I believe for no other reason than—that they are ashamed of them.
(Messenger and Advocate II.7:296 ¶9–11)

In 1837, one missionary wrote a letter to the Messenger and Advocate, explaining that 

“Mormonism unvailed” has been circulated in this part of the country, but that has but little influence on the minds of those who are seeking after truth: What is the chaff to the wheat? The truth is, the honest in heart will and do rejoice when they hear the truth proclaimed.

(Messenger and Advocate III.11:549 ¶4)

The 1838 Elders' Journal included this discussion of Mormonism Unvailed.

Is it any wonder then, that we say of the priests of modern days that they are of Satan’s own making and are of their father the devil. Nay verily nay, for no being but a scandalous sycophant and base hypocrite would say other ways. As it was with Doctor Philastes Hurlburt, so it is with these creatures. While Hurlburt was held in bounds by the Church and made to behalf himself, he was denounced by the priests as one of the worst of men, but no sooner was he excluded from the Church for adultery, than instantly he became one of the finest men in the world. Old deacon Clapp of Mentor ran and took him and his family into the house with himself and so exceedingly was he pleased with him, that purely out of respect to him, he went to bed to his wife. This great kindness and respect Hurlburt did not feel just so well about but the pious old deacon gave him a hundred dollars and a yoke of oxen, and all was well again.
This is the Hurlburt that was author of a book which bears the name of E. [Edward] D. Howe, but it was this said Hurlburt that was the author of it. But after the affair of Hurlburt’s wife and the pious old deacon, the persecutors thought it better to put some other name   as author to their book than Hurlburt, so E. D. Howe substituted his name. The change however was not much better. Asahel Howe, one of E. D.’s brothers who was said to be the likeliest of the family, served apprenticeship in the work house in Ohio for robbing the post office. And yet notwithstanding all this, all the pious priests of all denominations were found following in the wake of these mortals.
Hurlburt and the Howes are among the basest of mankind, and known to be such and yet the priests and their coadjutors hail them as their best friends and publish their lies, speaking of them in the highest terms. And after all this, they want us to say that they are pious souls and good saints. Can we believe it? Surely men of common sense will not ask us to do it.
Good men love to associate with good men, and bad men with bad ones, and when we see men making friends with drunkards, thieves, liars, and swindlers, shall we call them saints? If we were to do it, we might be justly charged with “partaking of their evil deeds.”
Therefore until we have more evidence than we have now, we shall always think when we see men associating with scoundrels, that they themselves are scoundrels. And there we shall leave them for the present, firmly believing that when the day of decision had come that we shall see all the priests who adhere to the sectarian religions of the day. With all their followers, without one exception, receive their portion with the devil and his angels.
(Elders’ Journal I.4:59 ¶11–60 ¶4)

3. Starting in October 2011, a team organized by John Dehlin conducted a survey and prepared an analysis about the so-called "faith crisis" among Latter-day Saints, emphasizing SITH.

4. April 2013. Runnels released the CES Letter that, among other things, questions the historicity of the Book of Mormon and presents SITH as the "actual" origin of the Book of Mormon instead of the traditional narrative of the translation by means of the Urim and Thummim.

5. August 2013. Dehlin and his team presented the final "Faith Crisis Report" to Church leaders.

6. November 2013. The first Gospel Topics Essays were published on the Church's website, justifying SITH without even quoting what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation with the Urim and Thummim.

Ever since, on his Mormon Stories podcast John Dehlin has used SITH as a means to undermine faith, citing the Gospel Topics Essays themselves.

The Interpreters

The Interpreters also embrace and promote SITH, claiming Joseph didn't use the U&T or the plates, but differing with the critics in the sense that they claim Joseph was inspired by God, while the critics claim Joseph composed the text and lied about the Urim and Thummim and the plates.

For example, in 2016 Book of Mormon Central published an article claiming there is "ambiguity" about the translation.

Like other SITH-sayers, Book of Mormon Central (BMC) ignores the specific and unambiguous explanations from Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Instead, BMC cites the speculations of scholars to create a place for the SITH narrative from Mormonism Unvailed.

Dan Peterson and his Interpreter Foundation produced a feature film to promote the SITH narrative from Mormonism Unvailed.


In my view, what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation makes more sense and is better supported by the evidence than what the SITH-sayers claim. This is just as true today as it was in 1834 when E.D. Howe published the SITH narrative in Mormonism Unvailed.

But that's just me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

GTE on translation - again

The translation essay keeps coming up, so I'll address it in a slightly different manner here.

People who cite the Gospel Topics Essays as doctrine or statements of the First Presidency but may not have read the introduction to those essays. Nowhere have Church leaders stated, suggested, or implied that these essays were ever intended to replace the scriptures, the teachings of the prophets, or authentic historical documents. Furthermore, they are subject to change at any time without notice, they have been changed in the past, and they will likely be changed in the future.

Plus, the Gospel Topics Essays are not the official history of the Church. Neither are the Saints books. These are merely aids to help understand the actual history, which is contained in the Joseph Smith Papers and related archival documents (such as Wilford Woodruff's journal).

Here is the introduction to the essays:

Gospel Topics Essays
In the early 1830s, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was less than three years old, the Lord invited members of the Church to seek wisdom by study and by the exercise of faith: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

This is more than a simple exhortation to learn about the gospel. It is an invitation from the Lord to recognize that not all sources of knowledge are equally reliable. Seeking “out of the best books” does not mean seeking only one set of opinions, but it does require us to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable sources.

Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.

The Church places great emphasis on knowledge and on the importance of being well informed about Church history, doctrine, and practices. Ongoing historical research, revisions of the Church’s curriculum, and the use of new technologies allowing a more systematic and thorough study of scriptures have all been pursued by the Church to that end. We again encourage members to study the Gospel Topics essays cited in the links below as they “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

We can see that the intent of these essays was to "gather accurate information" into one place. The essays were never intended to change Church history or doctrine.

When considering the essays, it is essential that readers distinguish between "accurate information" and mere commentary. In this case, it's significant that the essay on translation never even fully quotes what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation. Instead, the essay inexplicably

(i) quotes an excerpt from the preface to the 1830 edition that omits the key point that he took the translation from the plates; i.e., not from a stone in a hat. "I would inform you that I translated by the gift & power of God & caused to be written one hundred & sixteen pages the which I took from the Book of Lehi which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi by the hand of Mormon." 

(ii) misrepresents the question posed in the Oct. 1831 conference (note 25), which involved the "coming forth of the Book of Mormon," not the translation per se.

(iii) omits what Joseph wrote in the Wentworth letter, "With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God

(iv) omits what Joseph wrote in the Elders' Journal. "How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon? Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were, and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon. (Elders’ Journal, July 1838)

(v) omits what Oliver Cowdery wrote about his experience. Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, "Interpreters," the history or record called "The book of Mormon."

(vi) omits what Oliver related about Moroni telling Joseph it would be his “privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record."

(vii) omits other statements that reiterate what Joseph and Oliver always claimed


(viii) instead relies instead on statements by various SITH sayers, along with commentary by editors who have long taught SITH. 

For example, look at note 20, which cites Mark Ashurst-McGee's Master's Thesis. Mark is an employee of the Church History Department and an editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. The note supposedly supports this statement: "As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture." That is purely Mark's speculation about what Joseph was thinking. It's pure mindreading, written in the essay as fact. It's the opposite of the "accurate information" these essays were intended to gather.

People often quote the following sentences from the essay on translation. Again, the editors make statements of fact that are merely speculation:

Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. 

The first sentence is misleading because Joseph Smith never once "wrote of two instruments." Nor did Oliver Cowdery. Whether it is misleading on purpose or just poorly written doesn't matter because there are no reliable sources from Joseph or Oliver to back up that claim. Instead, the SITH proponents rely on David Whitmer, who was never a scribe, on Emma, who was a scribe but we don't know what parts of the text she wrote, and Martin Harris, who never wrote any of the Book of Mormon we have today. As we discuss in the book, Emma's testimony is inconsistent and her own son, who recorded it, later decided Joseph used the U&T instead of the seer stone. Martin's statements are consistent about the U&T with the exception of the Edward Stevenson account of stone swapping, which Stevenson related only long after Martin had died and which Martin had never told anyone else. Whitmer's statements, as a non-scribe who was never present in Harmony (where most of the Book of Mormon was translated) and who said he was not around for most of the translation even in Fayette, are numerous but inconsistent and late. Plus, David also claimed that Joseph was a fallen prophet, that there was never any restoration of Priesthood, that God only called Joseph to produce the Book of Mormon and everything else was Joseph's invention, etc. 

According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English.

There are two obvious problems here. First, no one other than Joseph could see what was on the instruments, so any such statements are hearsay at best. Second, while we can see that some of these people claimed to be witnesses of the translation, whatever they observed could not have been the actual translation because none of them were authorized to see the plates or the Interpreters.

People usually accept Emma's "Last Testimony," which was published about 6 months after she died. During her lifetime, she never attested to this document, nor did anyone witness its creation other than her son, Joseph Smith III. Her "Last Testimony" also says Joseph never had another wife, etc. After it was published, several Saints in Utah published their accounts that contradicted Emma's. Eliza R. Snow said she couldn't tell whether it was Emma or Joseph Smith III who was the liar. And, of course, Brigham Young said Emma was the biggest liar he ever knew.

It's continually amazing to me how many people take Emma's statement out of context this way. People who know about the problems with the statement and accept it anyway don't explain why they think Emma told the truth about the translation but lied about plural marriage, or why people who knew her well, including Brigham and Eliza, said she was a liar. 

Few people explain why they believe Emma instead of Joseph Smith. Emma says directly that Joseph didn't use the plates or the Urim and Thummim, but instead used a stone in a hat. Even the essay points out that Joseph found this stone long before he obtained the plates. Thus, it could not have been the U&T that came with the plates. IOW, we have a direct conflict between Emma and Joseph. Joseph published his explanations in Church newspapers during his lifetime. Emma allegedly made her statement in private, shortly before she died, 50 years after the events she describes. 

For me, it's an easy decision. And yet, it's also appropriate for the essay to include the "Last Testimony" as part of the set of facts we all have to consider. I have not seen anything from the First Presidency stating that Emma's statement was correct and Joseph and Oliver misled everyone. However, by omitting the statements from Joseph and Oliver, the essay leads people to that conclusion. 

Still, as the introduction explains, "The Church places great emphasis on knowledge and on the importance of being well informed about Church history, doctrine, and practices." Those who simply accept these essays on their face, even though they omit relevant and "accurate information" that they should include, are abdicating their personal responsibility for seeking "learning, even by study and also by faith.”  

People usually discuss the stone Zina Young obtained from Brigham's estate after he died. The only link to the seer stone Joseph actually possessed (and gave to Oliver) is that it "matches the description." However, there are three major problems with it. 

First, Emma said Joseph "used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color." That description does not fit the striated stone the Church has published. 

Second, a newspaper account quoted David Whitmer as saying “He had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates." This is consistent with Emma's statement about the color, but also does not fit the striated stone. Of course, such consistency does not preclude Emma or David influencing the other about the color of the stone. 

David later corrected the newspaper but not the description of the color of the stone. He said, "I did not say that Smith used “two small stones,” as stated nor did I call the stone “interpreters.” I stated that “he used one stone (not two) and called it a sun stone.” The “interpreters” were as I understood taken from Smith and were not used by him after losing the first 116 pages as stated. It is my understanding that the stone referred to was furnished him when he commenced translating again after losing the 116 pages."   

Of course, David's statement here directly contradicts what Joseph and Oliver said, yet the SITH proponents prefer David's statement.

The third problem is that the actual stone in the photos is a particular type of striated rock, laced with layers of iron, that geologists say exists only in Wyoming. That means it's highly unlikely that Joseph found it in New York (whether while digging a well or otherwise), and even less likely that Martin Harris could have found an identical one in the Susquehanna River. It seems far more likely that Brigham Young (or someone else) picked it up in Wyoming during the trek to Utah and Zina bought it thinking it was a seer stone.

At any rate, people are free to believe whatever they want to believe. 

But the glaring omissions and misdirection in the Gospel Topics Essay on Translation should prevent anyone from relying solely on the essay for information, and certainly should prevent anyone from concluding that the First Presidency or other Church leaders have implicitly impeached Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by the contents of the essay. 

Oliver Cowdery and the translation

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery published his famous account of the trsanslation: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a...